The girls sat side by side Friday, eating their lunch and talking, with one offering the other a bite of pizza.
The two freshmen at Gary’s Lighthouse College Preparatory Academy had been fighting just two days before, but are participating in a program called the “Restorative Approach,” at the charter school, which has reduced the number of school suspensions.
Lighthouse Principal Angela West and Director of School Culture Tyler Radtke said it makes no sense to suspend students, which disrupts their education.
When they introduced this approach last year, administrators reduced suspensions from 1,040 in the 2013-14 school to 260 in the 2014-15 school year. This year, they expect a further reduction.
Lighthouse College Prep has about 750 students in eighth to 12th grades.
School districts across the state use out-of-school suspensions to punish students. Suspensions also alerts parents there is a discipline problem at school. However, educators say the unintended consequence is students deteriorate academically and sometimes get into more trouble because they have time on their hands.
Radtke said an out-of-school suspension doesn’t allow students to learn from what they did.
“Kids are going to make mistakes,” he said. “Some of them come from a tough area. We’re trying to teach them about life and social skills. If a kid is disrespectful to a teacher or says something they shouldn’t, sending them home does not teach them how to be respectful. It doesn’t teach them how to be successful.”
He said the kind of infractions that students have been suspended for include being disrespectful, flipping a desk, throwing pens or pencils and fighting. He said infractions involving weapons or drugs are an automatic expulsion.
The suspensions can range from one day to seven days, depending on the infraction. As a result, repeat offenders can be out of school dozens of days during the school year.
“We do a lot of team building, motivating and getting students to work together and understand these are not your enemies,” he said. “The students are required to apologize to each other. They do a community service project either in the school or outside of it.
The community service project can be cleaning up the cafeteria after lunch or folding uniforms after a basketball game. Radtke said the students involved in altercations are required to work together.
“What has really worked well at Lighthouse is the team building, life/social skills training that students go through when they get into a fight. It is a six-hour training that focuses on strengthening the students’ relationship while providing them with social skills that will set them up for success in the future. We don’t just suspend them for five days and think that is going to work,” Radtke said.
“Our goal is what will this do for our students five to 10 years down the road,” he said. “If a freshman is involved, our goal is making sure they are ready to enter society in four years. Kicking them out of school does nothing. It just continues a cycle.”
Radtke said Lighthouse schools across the country are using the restorative approach. He said it’s been modeled at other schools as well to reduce suspension, and Lighthouse staff have researched the process.
Radtke said it includes mentors working with students in small group sessions to talk about the consequences of their actions, social skills, life skills and forgiveness.
West said there has been a definite improvement since the school began using the restorative approach. She said nothing is ever resolved if the student goes home.
“Sometimes that’s what they want is a day off,” she said, with a smile.
“It was imperative to look at what we were dealing with students coming from all over the city and neighboring communities,” she said. “We were sending them home, but they were coming back to school with the same issues. Last year, we began using this process and are making a really big push again this year.”
The two girls who fought Tuesday said they learned a lot from using the restorative approach, and that they have become friends again. As they finished lunch to help clean up around the lunch room, they said they fought over a “silly” issue.
Parent Kenyyarda Alexander was at Lighthouse because her two children were involved in an altercation Friday morning.
“I like that they will bring the parents in so we could talk. It doesn’t get any better than that,” she said. “As soon as something happens, they call and let you know. I was able to come right in. I was able to meet with the parent of the other students. With Coach Q (Quincy Taylor) involved as mediator, we were able to resolve the situation and the students shook hands at the end.”